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Tyshawn Sorey Remembers Tony Allen

The percussionist and composer pays tribute to a Nigerian drum giant (8/12/40 – 4/30/20)

Tony Allen
Tony Allen (photo: Bernard Benant)

I’m ashamed to say it, but I didn’t happen upon Tony’s work until fairly late in my career, maybe about 10 years ago. I mean, I was familiar with Fela Kuti’s name, so finally I got up the curiosity to check out the music, and of course I loved the music immediately. And the drumming specifically was what interested me. It reminded me very much of what was happening in America right around the same time. I didn’t know who the drummer was until I looked up [Fela’s band] Africa ’70 and did a little bit of research.

Another way that I’ve gotten acquainted with Tony’s music was through my association with Michael Veal, who’s sort of the authority on Afrobeat today. He’d worked with Tony on his autobiography [Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat] and he had sent me some proofs—it wasn’t out yet. Veal was the person who connected me to Tony in a deeper way, and he pushed me to really understand the historical significance of his work, not only to the world of drumming but to the world of music, period.

I was a Danish International Visiting Artist in 2013, and I lived in Denmark for two or three months. The year before I’d served on the faculty at the summer jazz camp in Vallekilde, and this year Tony was going to be on the faculty there. The people at Vallekilde invited me back, and I wanted to meet Tony, so I went. And we met, and he was just super-amazing to be around. So full of wisdom, and so full of life. I guess he was about 72 years old, and one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. Later on that week, we performed a faculty concert together, and we both really jelled. And we stayed out of each other’s way, you know? I think he enjoyed that, and it was fun for me to get to play with another drum set player that’s playing a completely different style from what I’d been doing. It was magical.

The other thing that happened night after night with Tony was that he would just sit at the drums and play. And all of a sudden, a group of students and faculty would end up playing and it would be like an all-night jam session. This was almost every night. [Laughs]

I’ve learned so much not just from having been around him in Denmark but also from things in his autobiography that I kept reading over and over. One thing he said that was really exemplary was “Don’t fight the drum set.” You don’t have to show that you’re some kind of great drummer; when you sit at the drum set, your body is playing the entire world. You have to be aware of what your body is doing when you’re sitting down at the instrument. Watching him perform, his body would be perfectly centered within the instrument—which is something that I should have learned already. And the way that he would deliver was never forceful or brutal or anything of that sort. He talked about caressing the drums. You have to make the music do something, but you don’t necessarily have to do it through your body, you do it through whatever you’re playing.

I consider Tony Allen an innovator, much as I would consider somebody like Clyde Stubblefield or Jabo Starks or Bernard Purdie among the pantheon of all of the great legendary drummers like Elvin Jones or Max Roach. I mean, he’s contributed that much to the music on such a high level. You can’t really describe it so much in words, you’ve just gotta hear it.

[as told to Mac Randall]

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